Antonio Machado - Poem

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

"In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I'd like all the odor of your roses."

"I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead."

"Well then, I'll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain."

The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
"What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?"

Antonio Machado


How the Years Pass

I recently dusted off my old Rolleiflex TLR after many years of digital-only photography. This shot from a roll of expired Tri-X reminds me of one of my favorite poems from the great Chinese Tang Dynasty poet, Tu Fu. It's from Rexroth's wonderful translation, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

The camera was given to me by my mother-in-law, who recently passed away. She bought it new in the early 1960s, so it's been in the family for 50+ years. Thinking of her and this photograph and how the years – and lives –  slip away, fills me with the poignancy expressed in Tu Fu's poem. I know she would be pleased that her Rollei is being put to use.

JADE FLOWER PALACE

The stream swirls. The wind moans in
The pines. Grey rats scurry over
Broken tiles. What prince, long ago,
Built this palace, standing in
Ruins beside the cliffs? There are
Green ghost fires in the black rooms.
The shattered pavements are all
Washed away. Ten thousand organ
Pipes whistle and roar. The storm
Scatters the red autumn leaves.
His dancing girls are yellow dust.
Their painted cheeks have crumbled
Away. His gold chariots
And courtiers are gone. Only
A stone horse is left of his
Glory. I sit on the grass and
Start a poem, but the pathos of
It overcomes me. The future
Slips imperceptibly away.
Who can say what the years will bring?

                                                     —Tu Fu


Edouard Boubat – Photography as Life

 

Photograph above by Edouard Boubat

I recently downloaded to my iPad all the available past issues of Bill Jay's camera journal, Album.  The PDFs  can be found here. The publication lasted one year1970 – but contains photographs of and writings by and about many of the world's greats up to that point. I browse issues from time to time and always find something inspiring. 

The final issue has a selection of images by French photographer, Edouard Boubat, along with a wonderful introduction to him. I wanted to share a Boubat quote from the opening paragraph that particularly resonates with me and, I hope, with you: 

I am not concerned with the photograph as an end result. I am much more concerned with reacting to reality. This is why I do not like to manipulate the image or set up the subject. If life is rich enough there is no need to distort or adapt it. I am not interested photographers' philosophies, concepts or opinions about pictures. Photography is inextricable wrapped up with life. My way is to simplify—simplify my mind, my life, my way of working. I want to be more and more naked, and only to push the button. Photographers are often angry and a little horrified at this admission. But I do not believe photographers have anything to do but to live, to live very intensely. That is enough. They must focus their attention intensely on the subject. Photographs should be like poems. If my pictures give the viewers a good feeling, that is all that I dare hope for. Photography is my whole life. There is no gap between my picture-making and my living. They are the same thing." 

 

More of Boubat's work here on Google images. 


Logan Square, Chicago

I don't photograph homeless people. But as I waited for my daughter in front of the French bakery in Logan Square, there she was,  rummaging just a few feet away through a sidewalk trash can. The scene broke my heart. It was one of those rare moments in which the reality that swirls unnoticed around us each day suddenly stops and magnifies. I took the photo.

I watched her open discarded coffee cups and styrofoam food containers looking for remains—calmly, naturally, as if this is what one does on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. I watched people stream by—lovers, children, her peers—enjoying their day, as though everything was right with the world. I wondered about her life, her family, what brought her to this point.Mostly I felt sadness, nearly to the point of tears. It wasn't just that moment, but imagining all the moments of her history that brought her to this place, this time, this fate.

Several days later, this image still haunts me. I feel shame for not offering something; a loaf of bread, some cash, any kindness. This is my own plight. But of hers, what can be said? There are no words. Sometimes the pathos of life, the indifference, is almost too much to bear.


The Offering - A Poem

Sujata is a pivotal figure in Buddhist lore and a symbol of piety and service. The daughter of a wealthy cowherder, the story says she heard that a deity had manifested in a grove near her home. Seeking a blessing, she prepared an elaborate offering and took it to the forest. The god, in fact, was Buddha, who, after six years of extreme asceticism, had that day discovered the Middle Way and had decided to resume eating. It is said that her simple porridge—his first meal—fortified him so much so that he resolved to not rise from his meditations until he attained enlightenment. History records that he did so under the bodh tree that night.

The Offering

In ancient India, in a forest near Senani,
Sujata’s hands trembled
as she lay her offering before the god.

For some reason, I think of her today—
maybe the twilight and early stars, the blue
of her sari, silver-threaded and sheer—
and understand that all I am capable of giving
will not, will never, be enough.

They say she milked a thousand cows,
fed their milk to five hundred more,
theirs to half again as many—and on and on
until the last two bore a whiteness
that if you looked on it you would feel shame.

My hammock slows its gentle arc.
Low sun softens the half-barren trees.
Red leaves fall, rise, flutter
like tiny flags on wheels of prayers.

A little rice, some honey, her best bowl,
etched in ivy, rimmed with gold.
Her forehead pressed to luminous dust.
She dared not raise her eyes, nor speak—
conscious only of the elegance
of slender toes and bronze skin, the scent
of jasmine, the warmth of weightless
breath on her neck’s bareness.
And the immensity between them.

Maples swirl the blue of sky,
mix in orange and red, like henna
on the cupped palms of dusk.

She did not know the god was Buddha.
Knew nothing of the transmutation
of approaching night, that the world outside
and the world inside would never be the same.
He smiled. He raised her head with his eyes.
On his face the mystery of moons and tides,
of seasons gathering the earth in their arms.

On my face the touch of final sun.
I close my eyes, hear nothing but wind,
like the sound of waves. Tears rise
from unnamable oceans, loosen
the knots of ancient moorings.
I think I understand now—something about
forgiveness and the willingness to receive.

Her last awareness before the gift
was of her life—of all she had given
and not given. He lifted the bowl to his lips
and relished the offering.


Shomei Tomatsu—Words and Pictures

Photo by Shomei Tomatsu

My wife and I attended a wonderful show at the Art Institute of Chicago by Japanese photographer and writer, Shomei Tomatsu. It was unique for the combination of his powerful photographs and elegant prose. We liked the show so much we went back again the next day.

Can we consider photographs to be similar to words? Even if you pile up a lot of single pictures, you can't restrict the meanings of the pictures, can you? For me, the work is not connecting photograph and photograph, but connecting photograph and text. Putting together pictures with pictures, the aim is not to stop them from speaking, but to increase their speech.

—Shomei Somatsu

It's hard to argue with Somatsu's perspective on photographs and meaning. Words and pictures are both symbols. Neither is the thing it represents. But humanity has a long history of applying increasing precision to language, while much less so to pictures. A few images have acquired specific and shared meanings; the cross, the octagonal shape of a stop sign, a raised middle finger. But by and large, images remain a comparatively subjective means of communicating. Combined, however, the evocative quality of photographs and the explanatory power of prose create an art form that may be unmatched in expressing meaning.

More of his work at The New Yorker


Street Music

I rarely ask to take photos on the street, but I stopped and chatted with this man. He's a street harmonica performer, who sits in the morning sun at the eastern mouth of a long, wide tunnel under Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, using the tunnel as his amplifier. The sound is remarkable. I tipped. We talked. Before 9/11, he said, he could take in $400 on a Saturday. Now he's lucky if he breaks 50. "That changed people," he said. "Made us all suspicious."


Art of the Sacred

Among the many wonders on display at the Art Institute of Chicago are two adjoining rooms dedicated to ancient religious art of Southeast Asia. Buddhas, Shivas, Ganeshes, and many other representations of gods, goddesses, demons, and their manifestations fill that space. I feel a deep affinity for some of the Buddhas, their postures, expressions, and mudras. My heart greets them in hidden namaste.

Whenever I visit the museum, I welcome a walk through those rooms. I'm sure the various sculptures and castings were created with all sorts of motives--some noble and devout, some vain and base. Still, the place feels sacred to me, like a temple, charged with thousands of years of human desire for transcendence. 


Unnecessary – A Poem

Unnecessary

Rising late today, just before sunrise,
I nevertheless lie idly,
watch the long shadows of dawn
mold existence out of darkness –
a second dimension, then a third,
a cloud, a tree, a house, a road.

Out of the mouths of these shapes
a hundred distant voices call my name,
the insistent sounds of a day opening.
I ignore them all, let the world
take its course, and enter my devotions
like a rock in a stream.

What is it out there that needs me?
What is it out there that can’t wait?

Soon the froth and noise still.
The water parts, glides
almost imperceptibly around my sides
like silk around a woman’s hair,
until no motion at all is discernible
and I am lost in a world inside this world.

Returning, I rise lightly, smile,
and set about my business
amid shapes and sounds that,
the moment I abandon them,
conform perfectly to my absence.


Restoring Connections

Photograph by Allen Ginsberg
Left to right: Bob Donlon, Neal Cassady, Ginsberg,
Robert LaVigne, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Last weekend I attended a moving Sunday discourse by renowned spiritual Master and meditation teacher, Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj. It was the final talk of his winter visit to the Chicago area. He opened by commenting on the day's cold weather (in the teens), and noted how we cover ourselves with clothing, layer upon layer, as temperatures drop in our part of the world. Using this as a metaphor, he then suggested that the same process marks our emotional lives, as we erect increasingly denser psychological coverings to protect ourselves from life's coldness and the many hurts we experience as we grow. Advancing into our 40s, 50s, and beyond, we may congeal, as the bricks in these walls accumulate and destroy the spirit of open-heartedness we knew as children and youths. Ultimately, he said, we may awake one day to the sad realization that we no longer have any true friends.

Always an optimist, with remarkable conviction in the spiritual resources within each of us, the remainder of his discourse centered on our potential to regain that love and fellow-feeling by strengthening our spiritual values and connecting with the divinity within ourselves through meditation. 

Coincidentally, on the morning before the discourse, a friend emailed me an excerpt from an essay on Allen Ginsberg's photographs. Known, of course, as a seminal Beat poet, Ginsberg was also an active photographer, first casually on his own, and later more seriously with advice from his friend, Robert Frank. The photographs offer an engaging portrait of his pals, pivotal characters of modern American culture. Googling a bit, I traced the excerpt back to an essay by Matthew Smolinsky at the blog OBSCURA. It's a wonderful piece, the first in a series. The other parts can be found here.

Listening to Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj's opening remarks, my thoughts returned to what I had read earlier that day, in one of those unexpected but welcome juxtapositions of significance. In particular, I remembered the sense of community and open sharing represented by this paragraph: 

"Faith in the sanctity of art and the moment of creation, and the confessional spirit of their work, made the Beat movement not only artistic but spiritual in nature. It is a lineage going back to writers like Rimbaud, Proust, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, and spiritual philosophers like Socrates and Milarepa. The Beats believed in reading their work aloud when possible, and they read the work of others voraciously - often aloud to each other. They generally approached art as a communal experience where everything was shared. They collaborated freely with artists in other mediums, and as mature artists they taught and mentored young artists."

What touches me in this essay is the feeling of "communal experience" and open sharing that Smolinski describes. I suspect most of us fondly recall that intimacy among friends from our own youth and young adulthood. Maybe I should speak only for myself, but I look at my life now and the lives of my friends, and it seems we all are like speeding trains traveling parallel tracks. It's wonderful that that we all are pursuing shared goals of personal and spiritual growth and creativity. It's wonderful that our tracks still cross often, and when they do we delight in each other's company. But meaningful connections seem fewer and fewer as the years go by. And I'm pretty sure I'm not romanticizing the past.

Perhaps, as Sant Rajinder Singh Ji said, isolation is an unfortunate coping mechanism against life's relentless wear. Perhaps it's also an inescapable consequence of modern times, with dual-income families facing the realities of economic survival. Or, maybe it's our era of virtual communications, where emailing and tweeting replace face-to-face communication. Whatever the cause or causes, this growing sense of aloneness surely can, at least to some extent, be reversed. Two things I am certain of: Deepening our spirit of community is surely worth trying, and to do so, we can only look to ourselves. 


Photography and Values

A Leica User Forum member shared this video on Daido Moriyama discussing his work and process. I find it remarkable. I share it, not because I'm enamored with his photography, but because the video crystallizes a point with which I have been preoccupied for the last two years. It's a theme I've come to believe is central to a meaningful creative life, whether our medium of choice is music, poetry, or a visual art.

What moves me is Moriyama's description of the vision behind his street photography: "For me cities are enormous bodies of people's desires, and I search for my own desires within them. I slice into time, seeing the moment. That's the kind of camera work I like." Later he adds, "I see Shinjuku as a stadium of people's desires...where overcrowded and jumbled thoughts and desires are whirling. I can't photograph anything without a city."

His interest in desire strikes me as a particularly Buddhist vision. Buddhism, after all, is a faith grounded in desire as the root of delusion and limitation. Of course, human desire runs the gamut from base to noble. Moriyama, known for his "snapshots" of life in the dim alleys of Shinjuku, Tokyo, seems to relish desire's darker interiors. Whether or not we agree with his view of humanity, whether or not we like his work, few could fail to admire his self-knowledge and conviction and what it has done for him as an artist. What I like about this video is how it underscores the role of a strong philosophical foundation in artistic pursuits. Whatever we happen to believe in, it seems to me that ideas and ideals are vital to any creative endeavor that is to have depth and unity, and to sustain us creatively over years and decades.

In his powerful book, Negative/Positive: A Philosophy of Photography, critic Bill Jay describes this approach as "values-driven" photography. The book is at once a diatribe against the modern focus on artistic product, and a call to center photography on the photographer and his/her belief system. In short, it's not about our pictures; it's about who we are and what we believe.

In a chapter entitled "From Humanism to Heroism," Jay digests his viewpoint into a call for a new artistic standard—the "hero" photographer:

"The hero is an individual who cares not a fig for his own nakedness and vulnerability, and his only passion is the search for truth. He does not "fit-in" a group or style or movement since he is not interested in systems but only in the striving toward his own completeness as a human being. This struggle to be free, to creatively express his own life-attitudes, makes him seem arrogant, sometimes abrasive, always indifferent to the pettiness of others. Above all, the hero's single-minded objective is to live more intensely. The overflow of this intensity will be shared with others in the form of photographs, but the hero is not concerned with good or bad but only in the act of struggle toward a higher level of existence."  

Jay concludes his book with a practical, step-by-step model for anyone serious about taking his or her photography deeper. I oversimplify, but the steps are these: 

  1. Thoroughly examine your convictions and values and decide to actively embrace them in your life and art.
  2. Determine if those values and convictions are worth expressing and sharing with others.
  3. Determine whether or not your life-attitudes can be expressed photographically.
  4. If they can be, take their expression seriously; think and study deeply to arrive at a mode of expression that best suits your vision.
  5. Pursue your approach rigorously and systematically, constantly evaluating and evolving, with no regard to what others think.

I don't know much about Moriyama personally, and I'm not a fan of his point of view. But I'd place him among the hero artists Jay's describes, and I think the Moriyama we meet in this video would map well to Jay's model. It's not that there is anything wrong with casual shooting, purely for enjoyment. But at some point in life we must grow and mature. I love what James Wright wrote about his own poetic aspirations: "The kind of poetry I want to write is the poetry of a grown man." Photography, it seems to me, can be both a facilitator and an indicator of that growth. Self-knowledge and its expression may not guarantee a stellar body of work. But without an understanding of and commitment to our beliefs, we will forever be shooting surfaces and peripheries.

At seventy-four years old, Daido Moriyama has been roaming the same Tokyo streets for over fifty years and, as he says in the video, "could never see the city with an old man's eyes or as if I understood everything." My guess is that a large part of that longevity and creativity—as well as his acclaim—is a direct result of having consciously aligned his life and his art.


A Poem by Kabir Sahib

I was recently looking through some of my Agfachromes from the 1970s. While most were shooting Kodachrome back then, I favored this slide film for its low contrast, soft, warm colors, and lovely grain. The image below reminded me of a favorite poem by the 15th century mystic and poet, Kabir Sahib.

Kabir is considered the founder of the Sant tradition in India, and he is among the few spiritual figures claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. There are many translations of his poetry, but none I've read matches the beauty and power of Rabindranath Tagore's book, The Songs of Kabir. In Indian mystic literature a common term for the soul is hansa or swan.

Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.
From what land do you come, O Swan? to what shore will you fly?
Where would you take your rest, O Swan, and what do you seek?

Even this morning, O Swan, awake, arise, follow me!
There is a land where no doubt nor sorrow have rule:
   where the terror of Death is no more.
There the woods of spring are a-bloom, and the fragrant
   scent "He is I" is borne on the wind:
There the bee of the heart is deeply immersed, and desires no other joy.

—Kabir Sahib


Guest Post

 

Photo by Howard Linton

 

My good friend and fellow photographer, Howard Linton, invited me to comment on the photograph above in a guest post on his blog. You can read the post here. Thanks, Howard. I enjoyed reflecting on your wonderful image. 


The Slant of Winter Light

There aren't many things I relish about Midwest winters, but among them is the quality of light on days just before and after the Winter Solstice, which here occurs around the third week of December. The sun crosses the sky on its southernmost arc, spilling wonder through the south and north windows of my home. I take breaks from my office work periodically throughout the day to observe and photograph. Especially at about 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM something interesting always seems to be on display, as the soft, low light interacts with objects inside, giving even the most mundane things significance.

Here are a couple recent pictures and a well-known poem on the subject by Emily Dickinson.

by Emily Dickinson

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
'Tis the Seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –


Changes – A Poem

Changes

Something of what you were lingers
long after you are not that anymore

like the sense of lost love, like a child
who can’t let go, but all the while

knows. At some point the inevitable—
you stop looking his way, or he yours,

you grow and pass through
as have countless summers and winters

you were certain would not end.
Untroubled, you live in peace, at least

for a while, as the one you have
become offers smiles, a soft hand.

Now, past is gone, future is gone
and in their place a pleasure

none of you could have imagined
and none of you can hold onto.